BY GEOFF HOBSON
GEORGETOWN, Ky. - Corey Dilon called it a war.
"It was back and forth for a long time," he said today.
And one of the casualties was his pride, badly wounded back in June when the Bengals wouldn't give him the long-term contract he felt was worthy of an elite NFL back. But when wars end, time heals and to the victors go the spoils. Dillon, the Bengals Pro Bowl running back, had to call himself a victor after the year-long tractor pull of a contract negotiation ended today with a one-year contract for $3 million.
And as his teammates prepared for tonight's practice here at Georgetown College, they felt like they had won something, too.
"It's definitely a blessing," said quarterback Akili Smith, the main beneficiary of the Dillon signing. "The running game did well last week with the backs we do have. But Corey Dillon is a proven back and that's what it's all about."
Bengals coach Bruce Coslet called it a morale booster, saying it derives the same momentum as signing a first-round draft pick early or convincing a respected veteran free agent to sign.
Cornerback Artrell Hawkins heaved a sigh or relief.
"I think we need him in our offense," Hawkins said. "We did pretty well without him the other night. But I think with him in there, we'll be a lot better. We need Corey."
Bengals President Mike Brown felt the same way. When the negotiations snagged this morning on $300,000 in upfront money the Bengals offered $700,000 and Dillon wanted $1 million Brown didn't blink when he gave son and Bengals vice president Paul the go-ahead to accept the offer. The price of a running back who has gained 1,000 yards in each of his three seasons and has a 4.6-yard per carry career average rose dramatically in a preseason the Bengals had surrounded the inexperienced Smith with running backs who had just 194 NFL carries for 809 yards.
When 62 of those carries were erased with Michael Basnight's broken wrist and receiver Darnay Scott's down-the-field speed was lost for the season with a broken leg, Dillon's stock rose like Bill Gates in cyberspace. It was fitting on the day Dillon signed, Harold Henderson, chairman of the NFL management council, visited camp.
Mike Brown had asked Henderson's staff if any team had ever paid a restricted free agent more than the tender offer. In Dillon's case, that was $1.37 million. Brown was told a handful of teams had, but no NFL club had ever paid more above the tender for a restricted free agent than the Bengals gave Dillon today.
"Absolutely I'm happy," said Dillon, who wanted a one-year deal for $3.5 million to match Stephen Davis in Washington. "It's a big difference of what I was going to make and what I'm making now. I'm just thankful they did what they did and got the whole thing taken care of. Now I can take care of playing ball and winning ballgames, My whole intention is going 110 percent."
Dillon has never hid his unhappiness during all the losing and he let go with some harsh words during the negotiations. But Brown said he has no doubts Dillon will arrive with a positive attitude and was encouraged by his upbeat reaction to the signing.
Brown said Dillon's signing bonus includes the controversial "Carl Pickens Clause," which gives the club the right to take back some of the bonus if he breaks loyalty language. Dillon balked at signing the clause, but was assured by management the club doesn't believe Dillon will pull a Pickens and rip coaches and the club.
"Corey's a competitor," said right tackle Willie Anderson. "Every talk I've ever had with him, he never said anything bad. It was always out of the spirit of wanting to win. Maybe it didn't come out right out of his mouth or maybe it wasn't printed the way he said it. But everything he's said is in the spirit of competing. He wants to win. He wants to be recoginized as one of the best at his position."
Smith has no qualms about the man's grit.
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"He's all business," Smith said. " You have to look at it from CD's point of view. He hasn't been successful in his career (as far as wins), but he's rushed for 1,000 yards in all his seasons. From a team standpoint, you've got to be upset. Hopefully, we can win and he can get his 1,000 yards and we'll all be happy. It's a lift. Everybody is excited about the whole situation. Maybe he'll be down on the sidelines in Atlanta and we can go out and get a win."
Dillon, who will accompany the team to Atlanta Thursday to take a physical and sign the contract, will dress but won't play Friday. Anderson thinks just seeing him will be enough.
"It's an emotional lift for the team," Anderson said. "When the Darnay thing happened, we responded well in the Buffalo game. That brought us to another level. Now to get Corey brings us back to another level. We've got our guy back for Akili and the offensive line back intact from last year."
It's assumed 2000 will be Dillon's last season in Cincinnati because the Bengals can't use the franchise player free-agent tag on him after the season. They can designate him a transition free agent and match an offer, but a competing team doesn't have to give up compensation.
Dillon wouldn't touch the subject of next year today and probably won't all year. Mike Brown said, "We could get to talking (about an extension) as the year goes on, but for now we'll rest on our oars."
Which is what they say after a war. No one wants to think about the next one.
"I caught glimpses of this kid on TV the other night in the game," said Dillon of first-round pick Peter Warrick. "The kid is really something. It's also going to take pressure off me. A receiver who can go get it and make plays down the field. And the offensive line looked good. They were strong. I'm ready to get it going."